ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON APRIL 20, 1990
By Steve Newton
It’s a sunny Friday afternoon on Granville Island. Art Bergmann and I are negotiating our way through armies of cars—parked and mobile—in search of a suitable spot to have a chat.
“I don’t have any money,” confides Bergmann as we head over to the Island from the nearby offices of his management team, Feldman and Associates. Ever-prepared, this scribbler assures him that he’s got a ten-spot just waiting to be turned into liquid gold.
We pick up the pace as the hot sun beats down on our leather jackets, mine brown, his the obligatory black, sporting the studded message, “Rock and Roll Idiot” on the back.
The Bridges sign looms up ahead, but there’s a cordoned-off area under construction directly in our path. After a moment’s hesitation, we slip between the ropes. A warning shout comes from across the way, but we carry on undaunted.
Halfway across the restricted area a surly construction worker tosses us the f-word, but it’s too late to turn back. And I’m not worried anyway, ’cause I’m with Art! I’ve seen him on stage, and if I were a cranky construction guy, I wouldn’t want to get him too riled up.
But when we finally get safely seated at a booth in the Backstage Lounge (Bridges was too packed and noisy), and the interview gets underway, I discover that this on-stage maniac is actually a really laid-back, introspective kind of guy. So what’s with all the vitriolic wrath that rolls off the stage whenever he plays? Is anger not his main driving force after all?
“No, I’m just trying to do a good show,” chuckles Bergmann, reaching for a hand-rolled cigarette. “That’s all. People have forgotten what rock and roll is. I’m just this little maggot living off the carcass, trying to keep it alive.
“People always say, ‘You’re so angry, and your words are so dangerous.’ And I say, ‘Does everybody forget Jimi Hendrix and the Stones and the Who and all the great rock and roll stuff?’ Everybody forgets what it is, you know.”
From the sound of Bergmann’s new album, Sexual Roulette, he’s one person who is mindful of the legacy of wild rock ‘n’ roll. Rowdy cuts like “Bar of Pain”, “Gambol”, “(She) Hit Me”, and the first video-single, “Bound for Vegas”, make Sexual Roulette one of the best Vancouver hard-rock releases since BTO’s Not Fragile.
The album should put Bergmann over the top, or at least greatly expand the audience he gained with his first solo LP, 1988’s Crawl With Me.
Bergmann’s journey from local underground hero to nationally known recording artist has taken him through a number of memorable bands, including the Young Canadians, Los Popularos, and Poisoned (which recently changed its name to the Showdogs, so as not to be confused with “that horrifying bubble-gum metal band”).
But Bergmann’s initiation into the musical life began when he was a teenager, tinkering with the guitar in places like Cloverdale, White Rock, and Abbotsford.
“I sort of grew up with music all around,” says Bergmann. “My parents were heavy into classical —my dad thinks music died after Beethoven, so there was a lot of that around the house. And I had to sing in church; that’s where I got to know harmony from, I guess, and melody. And then my older brothers were greaseballs, and they had all the great stuff like Eddie Cochran and Elvis and Buddy Holly.”
Like a lot of budding rockers, Bergmann was destined to swing from day to menial day job to keep his head above water while honing his guitar and songwriting crafts.
“Oh, I had lots of jobs,” he recalls. “I could do anything, you know, construction, painting. I’ve unloaded boxcars before at 30 below—that must have been the low ebb of my life. One day they put a load up and I just shoved it off and left.”
Over the years, Bergmann has developed a rough-hewn style of singing and playing guitar that makes his concerts screaming, spontaneous bursts of energy. “Both of them [singing and playing guitar] are so entwined together now that I just do both naturally.”
Nineteen-eighty-four was a crucial year in Bergmann’s career. With the Poisoned/Showdogs lineup of keyboardist Susann Richter, bassist Ray Fulber, and drummer Taylor Nelson Little, Bergmann recorded a six-song EP that caught the ear of legendary producer John Cale (Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith). Cale took them into the studio in April of ’88, and they came out with Crawl With Me, which won much critical acclaim and went on to sell 20,000 copies.
Although far from platinum, the album and its singles “Daddy’s Girl” and “My Empty House” made a great calling card for Bergmann, who was nominated for most promising male vocalist at the ’89 Junos. He was no longer just a hero of the Vancouver alternative scene.
With Sexual Roulette, Bergmann continues to tackle frightening topics like child abuse, suicide, alienation, and, in the title track, death by sexual misadventure. “This is my body,” groans Art. “What’s on your mind?/Are you giving me something I’ll get in five years’ time?”
“I wanted to write music as scary as that movie, Dead Ringers,” says Bergmann. “That scared the hell out of me. But reality to me is a lot scarier than any horror movie could ever be.”
Musically, though, Sexual Roulette is quite a departure from Crawl With Me, which failed to capture the Art that Vancouver knows.
“I exercised a lot more control over it, and brought a lot more guitar in. John Cale wasn’t actually that interested in guitar—he was looking for some kind of atmosphere. Whereas the atmosphere I have in mind is a lot different than his. Mine’s filthier—I like the sound of the actual grunge of an amplifier, the bubbles, squeaks, and farts.”
So does Sexual Roulette, with its tougher approach, have a better chance of selling a million than Crawl With Me did?
“That’s a loaded question,” says Bergmann, a suspicious gleam n his eye. “I think any record can sell a million—look at the shit that’s up there! Not that I’m sayin’ that my stuff’s shit. It’s better than the shit that’s up there.”
Between Bergmann’s MCA-backed record label (the Toronto-based Duke Street), the likelihood of strong U.S. distribution, and his heavyweight manager (Sam Feldman), there should be ample support for Bergmann on the business side of things. He hooked up with Feldman about three years ago.
“We sort of approached each other,” says Bergmann. “We were talkin’ to him, we said, ‘Can you help us out, we’ve got this great product!‘ And he saw our video for ‘Empty House’ and said, ‘These guys are gonna make money.’ I talked to Bruce Allen before that, but, God, if Lou Reed walked into his office he’d probably boot him out. Or Elvis Costello.”
To produce Sexual Roulette, Bergmann enlisted the talents of Chris Wardman (Chalk Circle, NEO A4), recording the bed tracks at Vancouver’s Profile Studios and mixing at Manta Sound in Toronto.
“We agreed on everything, so he was really great to work with,” says Bergmann. “I’d walk into the control room and say, ‘We should try this,’ and he’d say, ‘We’re already workin’ on it.’ ”
Not surprisingly, Bergmann picks the heavier tracks on Sexual Roulette as his personal favourites.
“I like ‘Vegas’, ‘Sexual Roulette’, ‘Bar of Pain’, but ‘Dirge No. 1’ is my all-time fave. It’s so heavy. In fact, I left the studio one day for a couple of hours, and I came back and Chris has three or four guitar tracks going backwards over top of it. He said [in a demonic voice] ‘Don’t ever leave the studio again!‘ I said, ‘Oh, it sounds great to me.’ ”
Bergmann says his lifestyle has changed somewhat since he’s become a mainstream-marketed recording artist, although not necessarily in the direction one would think.
“I find I do a lot less than I used to. When you’re an inspired amateur you work a lot harder—every day you’re hustling. Now you find yourself waiting around for management companies and record labels trying to work together, to find the opportune time to release your album ’cause they think you’re in competition with Billy Joel or Bruce Hornsby or something. It’s like, ‘Come on…’ ”
When his solo career is put in music-industry limbo, Bergmann gets his jollies performing at local clubs with Evil Twang, a local outfit that includes singer/songwriter Chris Houston, various members of D.O.A., and sometimes even Georgia Straight music editor/guitarist Alex Varty.
“Chris just approached me about playing with him, and I enjoy his psychotic lyric-making so much that I couldn’t resist the opportunity. I add the fuzz to his twang, so it’s a good combination.”
As Bergmann lights up another coffin nail—“Hey, smoking is glamorous!”—the 33-year-old rock vet expounds on how long he thinks he’ll be able to keep his musical career going.
“I’ll do it till I can’t write anymore, probably—which could be any day, you never know. Mental blocks come fast and furious as you get older.
“But these days I don’t force it at all—I don’t write unless I’m inspired,” he says, making flighty gestures with his hands. “This last album I tried to do spontaneous. I left half the lyrics till we were in the studio doing vocal tracks—that’s the only way you can come up with lines like in ‘Bar of Pain’. Half of those are just off the top.”
Although fame and fortune are quite often the two main goals for people in today’s rock biz, a half-hour chat with Art Bergmann leaves the impression that he’s very real, and that he’s driven more by artistic desire than financial gain. But stardom does have its privileges.
“I like to travel, so I want to travel the world playin’ this stuff. But am I satisfied? I’m actually pretty thankful, ’cause there’s a million great bands out there that will never be heard, period, ever. So if I ever get anywhere It’ll be on behalf of all those people who never get anywhere.”